Washington has made progress in reducing its backlog of sexual assault evidence kits, but justice delayed is justice denied. State officials must redouble their efforts to solve old crimes and prevent new ones.
A recent state performance audit revealed that as of Oct. 31, the state crime laboratory had 4,477 untested kits, with the oldest dating to 1982. That is an improvement from a backlog of 10,000 untested kits as of August 2019, reflecting the impact of a testing program that launched in November 2018.
For many years, women (and some children and men) who report a sexual assault have been examined at local hospitals and medical clinics, where semen and other evidence likely to contain the attacker’s DNA are collected. The evidence kits are then given to police for testing to help identify and build a case against the assailant.
But many of the evidence kits were never processed. Faced with first-generation technology and a lack of available testing slots, police and prosecutors followed through with the analysis only if they thought it would yield results that are useful in court.
The Washington State Patrol is responsible for testing sexual assault kits, either at one of its crime labs or by contracting with a private lab. If evidence is collected, a DNA profile is uploaded to a national database maintained by the FBI.
In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill requiring evidence collected in new cases to be submitted for testing within 30 days of collection, a deadline that since has been modified to 45 days. The law also encouraged testing of the evidence kits held in storage.
In 2019, a different bill set a deadline of Dec. 1, 2021, for the backlog of kits to be tested while requiring periodic assessments from the auditor’s office.
In that regard, the state has not fulfilled its promise to victims of sexual assault. Nor has it fully protected potential future victims; according to the audit, research indicates about half of those who commit sexual assault have done so more than once.
The audit notes that there are legitimate reasons for the continued backlog, including disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of that, it makes no recommendations, but adds: “We must emphasize the importance of the State Patrol staying the course without further delays. It must prioritize planned improvements to ensure the testing backlog is eliminated. This issue must not fade from public scrutiny.”
Indeed. And lawmakers are to be commended for placing attention on an issue that for too long was ignored or waved off. Nationally, an estimated 100,000 rape kits have not been tested, hindering countless prosecutions.
Washington has made progress, but State Patrol officials say some local jurisdictions have not submitted old kits for testing. Previous legislation does not give law enforcement or the state’s attorney general’s office the power to compel that kits be turned over — an oversight the Legislature should address. The audit says: “Both the Patrol and the Attorney General’s Office said they are currently working with police to identify and submit any outstanding historical kits for testing.”
In moving forward with cold cases, officials must demonstrate compassion for victims; reliving years-old or decades-old trauma can be devastating. But it is crucial that justice be pursued and that dangerous predators are punished for crimes.
For many victims in Washington, justice has been delayed far too long.